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Workplace wellbeing is more important to employees than we think

Opinion

Businesses that show their employees they value their wellbeing are rewarded with higher productivity and reduced costs, writes Geoff Harris.

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For every dollar we invest in making our workplaces mentally healthy we get a return of $2.30.

The maths is pretty simple: the investment is more than repaid by less absenteeism and higher productivity.

And when we ignore the sums, we get a very different result.

Between 2010 and 2015 around 91 per cent of workers’ compensation claims involving a mental health condition were linked to work-related stress or mental stress. These come in the form of work pressure, bullying, exposure to violence or sexual and racial harassment.

Over that five-year period, a typical compensation payment per claim related to mental distress was $24,500 compared to $9,000 for all other claims.

Whenever we want to sell cultural change around a social issue we talk about the dollars: how for such little investment we can get a high return and avoid costs.

However, the need for change is something that is not just coming from economists and number-crunchers but from medical practitioners too. Dame Carol Black in the United Kingdom over a decade ago delivered a seminal review that put workplace mental health issues into the spotlight. The review highlighted that a supportive work culture reduced the number of times employees were away from work and also encouraged earlier return to work after an absence.

Some years ago the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia brought Dame Carol to Adelaide to talk about these lessons with a range of employers as well as SA Health, Business SA, WorkcoverSA and Self Insurers SA. Since then we have seen progress in SA with our legislation now including mental wellbeing as a legal obligation in providing a safe workplace for employees.

But how far have we come in embracing mental health in the workplace?

The Productivity Commission in April released research that showed almost half of workers who are experiencing a mental health condition still face stigma in their workplace. Meanwhile, a quarter of us are experiencing high levels of stress at work.

This means many workers who are either experiencing a mental health condition or stress are choosing not to disclose it at work for fear of the consequences or worse – no action at all.

Dame Carol Black’s work was ground-breaking over a decade ago with more than 60 per cent of respondents to her research stating a desire for a more mentally healthy workplace. They also wanted more physical activity while at work as well as compliance and legal obligations.

While we have delivered on legislation and are more conscious of our physical wellbeing at work, we are still behind when it comes to our desire to have a more mentally healthy workplace.

Achieving the economic benefits of improved workplace wellbeing requires a culture that is positive and supportive. It will take more than tick-a-box compliance and risk management to make employees feel this way.

This week is Mental Health Week and the MHCSA have once again put on the Workplace Challenge with Business SA. The Workplace Challenge provides information and ideas to get you and your colleagues started.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to chat with your colleagues and do one thing each day for the month of October that will improve mental wellbeing in your workplace.

As October comes to an end we hope that some of these ideas will become habits. And that you might continue to build momentum to create a more supportive workplace culture that plays a vital role in reducing the stigma around mental health.

Geoff Harris is executive director of the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia.

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